Creating Systems Change to Lift Women and Girls

Kelly Nevins is currently CEO for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island (WFRI), the job she announced she wanted while getting her master’s degree in leadership. Growing up the daughter of a single mom who struggled to support her daughters while facing challenges that working men didn’t have made Kelly intimately aware of the workplace inequities between men and women. In fact, she says that when policies are made to help people, if they were not created with a gender lens, “Men and boys would continue to rise to the top, but women and girls would fall through the cracks.”  Also, less than 2% of foundational funding goes directly to help women and girls. This was true in 2001 when the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island was created and is still true today. As a result, Kelly has spent most of her career working to change the systems that cause inequities. She says that means the WFRI works in the spheres of advocacy, training leaders to advocate for change in the community and individuals to advocate for change for themselves.

Achievements for WFRI

Kelly notes that while WFRI is non-partisan and does not back women running for elected office, they do offer training programs to inform women how public service can support their vision for change. One success story she shares is how Gail Golden helped pass one of the first paid leave laws in the United States after attending one of the training programs WFRI offers, called the Women’s Policy Institute. Gail then became a senator in Rhode Island’s general assembly and now has moved on to be a senior adviser to the Women’s Bureau for the federal government.

Another success story is how WFRI helped pass the Fair Pay Act in Rhode Island, which changes the definition of what pay means. Kelly explains that the federal equal pay law was passed decades ago, but the courts have narrowly defined what equal pay means. She says WFRI worked really hard to broaden that so that unless there is a specific difference, like more longevity with the company or more education directly related to your job, people must be paid the same.

Advice for Women Today

Kelly says that right now it’s a “buyer’s market.” With one in three women leaving the workforce, employers are willing to negotiate to get good employees. Now is the time to ask for what you want and negotiate for what you need, including flex time, work from home and salary. There are also a lot of free or low-cost training programs out there. Kelly says to search for your state employment agency and see what they are offering. Some are even providing childcare as a benefit of their training. There are also options for gig employees, which is important since more women are interested in starting their own businesses. Of course, when they do that, there are no benefits. However, Kelly says that policies supporting those options are also being discussed. She points out that the pandemic has revealed that childcare isn’t a parenting issue; it’s a workforce issue, and “we need to make it accessible, safe and affordable. And she admits that it’s complicated and won’t be easy to solve, which is why we need women sitting at the table where those decisions are made.

Listen or watch this amazing conversation for more information about women’s funds. Kelly says there are hundreds of women’s funds throughout the country and the world. The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island is the only one in her state because it is so small. To learn more, check out their website ( or call 401-2-62-5647. Search women’s funding for more information or go to for a membership list of over 100 women’s funds.

If you don’t have a women’s fund in your area, you can start one. Kelly tells the story of an international fundraiser, Simone Joyaux, who was angry at the gender and racial inequities she saw and discovered a women’s fund doing good things in Arizona. She came back to Rhode Island and founded WFRI 20 years ago. Kelly says the volunteers and board members of WFRI are “advising at those tables where resources are being allocated and decisions are being made” and working “on legislative change both locally and nationally to set the stage for creating a better Rhode Island and a better country.”

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